A decade before Donald Trump stormed to the presidency by promising a wall on the Mexican border, Hazleton, Pa., constructed a series of legal barriers meant to drive out its burgeoning Latino population. The industrial town of 25,000 passed ordinances that made it harder for immigrants to find work, rent apartments or access city services. Xenophobic protesters descended on the town hall. Hispanic residents were harassed on the street.
A few years later, Arizona began a clampdown on undocumented migrants that saw police sweep through Latino neighbourhoods and round up residents.
In both places, the anti-immigration laws were ultimately thrown out by the courts. Anglos, for the most part, learned to live with newcomers. Latino communities continued to grow, hopeful that the ugly outbursts of prejudice were in the past.
But the 2016 election was a wake-up call. It showed the bigotry that had swept up parts of Pennsylvania and Arizona had national support. And it spurred a wave of Latino political organizing.
Now, Hispanic voters in these crucial swing states could play a decisive role as Mr. Trump seeks re-election on Nov. 3.
They are a growing segment of the population in the country and lean heavily Democratic. If they go to the polls in high enough numbers, it might be enough to decide the election. Their expanding demographic heft could be felt for decades to come, making Trump-style anti-immigration politics permanently unviable.
But Latinos have historically seen disproportionately low voter turnout compared with other groups, which makes their power uncertain. A sizeable minority, primarily in Florida’s Cuban diaspora, is staunchly Republican. And activists warn that, given many Hispanic voters' conservative values, the Democrats cannot take their support for granted.
So in the places first buffeted by the wave of xenophobia that would later wash over the country, community leaders are vowing that the battles of the past will not go to waste – and voters will seize the opportunity to change history.
“ ‘The Sleeping Giant,’ we call the Latinos,” said Amilcar Arroyo, editor of Hazleton’s Spanish-language newspaper. “We have to wake up.”
There are an estimated 32 million Hispanic voters in the U.S. this year, an increase of 4.5 million since 2016, according to figures from the Pew Research Center. They make up more than 13 per cent of eligible voters, surpassing African-Americans as the largest minority voting group in the country. While the proportion of white non-Hispanic voters has steadily declined, Hispanic numbers have risen.
Two-thirds of Latino voters went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, continuing a trend toward the Democrats that began with the 2008 election, after congressional Republicans killed attempts to give undocumented migrants a path to citizenship.
Latinos have yet to fully realize the political potential their numbers suggest. In 2016, only 47.6 per cent of Hispanic voters cast ballots, according to Census Bureau data, compared with 65.3 per cent of white non-Hispanic voters and 59.6 per cent of Black voters. “I’ve been asked for the last 20 years: Is this the year when Latinos flex their muscle at the ballot box? And my answer is always ‘No, probably not this year,’ ” said Joseph Garcia, who runs Chicanos Por La Causa Action Fund, a non-profit in Arizona that focuses on Latino voter engagement.
Latino voters tend to be younger, less wealthy and less educated than Anglo voters, all factors that contribute to their low turnout, Mr. Garcia said. He also worries that COVID-19, which hit the Latino population particularly hard in Arizona, may hamper them going to the polls this year.
On the other hand, he said the pandemic has raised the stakes for Latinos, who have disproportionately suffered from the health and economic consequences. And the waves of young Latinos who have come of voting age in recent years may have pushed the country past a demographic tipping point.
“This could be the year that shows that you can no longer win a major state-wide election, a national election, without the Latino vote. The numbers are there,” Mr. Garcia said.
Mounting anger over Mr. Trump is one reason Arizona is hotly contested this year.
Most polls show Democrat Joe Biden with a narrow lead in a state his party has carried in just one presidential election of the past 70 years.
The Democrats also won one of Arizona’s Senate seats from the Republicans in 2018 and are in a neck-and-neck race to take the other in November.
The President has characterized asylum-seekers from Latin America as violent “animals” who must be kept out with his wall. He instituted a policy of detaining refugee claimants, including separating young children from their parents.
He has tried to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that granted legal status to some undocumented migrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have stepped up efforts to find and deport undocumented migrants.
Olga Klem was so outraged at watching images of asylum-seekers detained at the U.S.-Mexico border that she volunteered to do Spanish-language voter outreach for the Democrats. “The Latino community needs to wake up and really say ‘You have so much power,’ ” she said.
Ms. Klem retired earlier this year as a teacher in South Phoenix, a lower-income and heavily Latino neighbourhood. She saw up close the effects Trump administration policies had on her students, particularly efforts to restrict DACA. Bright students graduated high school with honours, only to abandon plans to go to university because they couldn’t afford the steep tuition fees they were charged as international students.
The political battles of the Trump era brought back memories of Arizona’s own anti-immigration policies from 2010, a state law known as Senate Bill (SB) 1070.
The legislation made it a crime for immigrants not to carry documentation proving they were legal U.S. residents. It allowed law-enforcement officials to demand proof of legal status and turn over undocumented migrants to federal authorities. The act was personified by Joe Arpaio, the long-standing sheriff of Maricopa County at the time, whose department used it to conduct immigration sweeps in the Phoenix suburbs.
“There was a year where our kids were afraid to come to school because they were detaining them,” Ms. Klem said. “They were stopping them and asking them to see if they had documentation. It was an uproar.”
The U.S. Supreme Court overturned SB 1070 in 2012, and a popular backlash swept many of its supporters from office. A state senator who was the law’s leading architect was recalled. The county attorney who supported Mr. Arpaio’s efforts to round up undocumented migrants was disbarred.
Mr. Arpaio himself was defeated in his 2016 bid for re-election. In 2017, he was convicted of contempt of court for defying an order to stop conducting immigration raids. Mr. Trump issued his first presidential pardon to Mr. Arpaio almost immediately after the conviction.
While the pardon may have excited a portion of Mr. Trump’s base, it soured many Arizona voters on the President.
“It was a slap in the face,” said Yasser Sanchez, an immigration lawyer in Mesa, Ariz.
Mr. Sanchez, whose family emigrated from Mexico when he was 11, had been active in Republican politics for years. He was a student adviser for Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential bid. The walls of his office are lined with photos of him meeting George W. Bush, John McCain and Sandra Day O’Connor.
But in Mr. Trump he sees a revival of anti-Latino rhetoric that once permeated Arizona politics and has steadily alienated him from the Republicans. So in September, ahead of a visit by Mr. Trump to Phoenix, Mr. Sanchez spent US$10,000 to put up a series of billboards around town that read: “Adios Trump. AZ Latinos.”
Arizona’s former Republican senator Jeff Flake likened the political backlash that is playing out today in the state to the experience of California. There, a Republican governor won re-election in the 1990s in part by passing a law restricting undocumented migrants from accessing government services or sending their children to public schools. But the legislation sparked a revolt that eventually handed the state’s Democratic Party an overwhelming majority in the decades that followed.
“I kind of see that happening writ large for Republicans,” Mr. Flake said in an interview. “And it’s not a pretty sight.”
Set amid forested green hills in northeastern Pennsylvania, Hazleton rose to prosperity as a coal town in the first half of the 20th century. Its population peaked around 40,000 during the Second World War. Then, the mines closed and the community went into a decades-long decline. By the end of the 1980s, nearly half its residents had left. Scores of downtown storefronts stood empty.
The only economic bright spot was its location near the junction of two interstate highways. Companies such as Cargill, American Eagle and Amazon built warehouses in an industrial park on the edge of town, taking advantage of the easy freight connections to New York and the Midwest.
Starting in the late 1990s, a wave of Latinos began arriving. Most were authorized immigrants from the Dominican Republic, relocating from New York and New Jersey. They were attracted by jobs at the warehouses and the prospect of inexpensive single-family houses that would allow them to escape cramped apartments. The newcomers revived the moribund town, buying property and opening businesses.
Mr. Arroyo, the now editor, had come to Hazleton in 1989 from Peru to pack tomatoes on a farm. He watched the Latino population steadily increase from just 100 people to several thousand. By 2003, the community was large enough that he started his newspaper, El Mensajero, to serve it. Lou Barletta, the Republican mayor at the time, even sought Mr. Arroyo’s help translating city documents into Spanish.
But many Anglos didn’t welcome their new neighbours. They blamed the town’s crime and economic woes on the Latinos, and tried to intimidate them. Anti-immigration marchers protested at the town hall, waving American flags and shouting for Latinos to leave.
“If they hear you speaking Spanish in line at the supermarket, they say ‘Hey, this is America. We speak English. You don’t belong here. Go back to your banana country,’ ” recalled Mr. Arroyo.
Starting in 2006, Mr. Barletta passed laws that forced businesses and landlords to prove their employees and tenants were not “illegal immigrants," or face fines and the loss of business licences. The new rules also made English the town’s official language and forbade translating city documents going forward.
Civil-liberties groups challenged the laws in court. They were eventually overturned on the basis that a municipality cannot set immigration policy, which is the job of the federal government.
Ultimately, the ordinances did not stop Latino immigrants from coming. They now account for roughly half of Hazleton’s population. Along Broad and Wyoming Streets, the main thoroughfares, Latin American food stores jostle for space with Dominican restaurants and empanada takeout spots. On the side streets, which are a dense grid of clapboard row-houses, Latin pop music fills the air.
At the Hazleton One Community Center, a lineup of cars stretches around the block every Wednesday morning. In the centre’s parking lot, a group of high-school age volunteers – Black and white, Latino and Anglo – load food hampers and sacks of potatoes into the vehicles. Overseeing it all are Bob and Elaine Curry. Seven years ago, the couple helped start the community centre, in a two-storey brick building, to bridge the town’s divides.
Mr. Curry said Hazleton has largely moved on from the bigotry that drove the anti-immigration laws. Beyond the work of organizations such as the one he and his wife oversee, it’s also a simple acceptance of reality. All of the local economic development in the past two decades has come from Latino immigration. Embrace that, or the town dies.
“It is the only future, the only path forward we have. Everybody’s gotten out of the ‘we’re going to send everyone back’ mentality,” said Mr. Curry, a balding man with a grey beard covered by a blue surgical mask. “It’s impractical and it would crush the economy.”
But Mr. Trump’s rise revealed that the old racism was not entirely gone. Guillermo Lara, who has lived in Hazleton since moving from Mexico in the 1990s, recalled shopping at Walmart around the time of the 2016 election and hearing fellow shoppers accuse him of “taking advantage of food stamps.” At his job as a maintenance worker on the local college campus, co-workers told him, “You’ll have to go back to Mexico – Donald Trump is winning.” He lost several friends.
That election spurred Latinos to step up. In 2018, two Hazleton Hispanic activists – Marilyn Calderon and Nicarol Soto – won seats on the Democratic Party’s state committee. The following year, Ms. Soto became the first Latina to win a primary for a town council seat.
“Since 2016, the number has grown of Latinos to get involved,” Mr. Lara said at the Democratic campaign office on Broad Street, where he and several other Latino volunteers gathered to make campaign calls one Thursday evening in late summer. “When Donald Trump won, he really made a lot of division between the Latinos and the Anglos.”
Luisa Soto, originally from the Dominican Republic, said she had been politically active in her homeland but hadn’t gotten involved during her first years in the U.S. That changed in 2016. “Many people are more motivated to go and vote because of the President,” she said. “For Donald Trump, Latinos are nothing, and that is not true – Latinos are working hard to build this country.”
For all the enthusiasm among Democrats that dissatisfaction with Mr. Trump will deliver the party a tidal wave of Latino votes this year, there is no guarantee the Latinos will remain Democratic as they become more politically active.
Latino voters have proven they are not part of a monolithic bloc. More than half of Floridians of Cuban background supported Mr. Trump in 2016, part of a long-standing conservatism driven by opposition to the communist dictatorship under Fidel Castro, and then his brother, Raul. The Republicans, meanwhile, have tried to tarnish Mr. Biden by equating his middle-of-the-road liberalism with the authoritarian socialism of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.
And there are fissures within the Mexican-American community between Latinos who can trace their U.S. lineage back generations and more recent immigrants. “I know that when [the President] speaks about criminals and stuff coming over, he’s not talking about us. Not the good immigrants,” said Alma Rodriguez, a Trump supporter living in Phoenix who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2.
A stay-at-home mother who is voting in her first presidential election, Ms. Rodriguez said that Mr. Trump’s policies, including his opposition to abortion, align with her conservative family values. Democrats, she said, “push onto my community a lot of lies, a lot of poison, a lot of fear. They tell us we’re victims and we’re not.”
Growing up Latina in Arizona, Lydia Abril said family members gravitated to the Democratic Party out of tradition. But the oldest of seven children, raised by a single mother who ran a tortilla-manufacturing plant, Ms. Abril abandoned the party after seeing the ways that government regulations made it hard for her family’s businesses to succeed.
She draws a distinction between immigrants who come to the country legally and undocumented migrants, who she believes are abusing government services.
“If I went to Mexico, they’re not going to hand me any food. They’re not going to give me a monthly cheque. But in America, they do it,” she said.
Mr. Trump has made a play for Arizona’s Latino community, visiting the state six times this year and opening a Latinos for Trump office in a strip mall in a predominantly Latino neighbourhood of South Phoenix. Mr. Biden, who has scaled back in-person campaigning because of COVID-19, has been to the state only once.
Mr. Garcia, who runs the non-profit for voter engagement, says he has seen relatively little concerted outreach by the Biden campaign within Arizona’s Latino community. His own organization, for instance, has not even been contacted. “I keep hearing about the Latino outreach,” he said. “Most Latinos I’ve talked to haven’t been in contact with the Biden campaign.”
It’s even possible that, whenever Mr. Trump leaves the White House, the Republican Party will cast aside its anti-immigrant rhetoric and appeal to conservative Latinos. It’s not a far-fetched prospect. As recently as 2004, George W. Bush pulled more than 40 per cent of the Latino vote. But his own party torpedoed these election gains by subsequently blocking immigration reform.
“Latinos are a conservative group,” said Damian Preciado, vice-chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party. “If Democrats don’t figure out a good way to talk to this group, they’re going to lose it.”
Others are less concerned with partisan politics, at least in the long term. The ultimate goal, they say, is simply ending xenophobic policies, and much of that could involve pushing Republicans away from Trumpism.
“If there are more Latinos sitting at the Republican table when decisions are being made about public policy, guess who wins?” Mr. Garcia said. “Latinos.”
In Hazleton, meanwhile, people see the same transition the town has made playing out on a national scale. After all, the U.S. government projects that Hispanic Americans will represent nearly a third of the country’s population by the middle of this century. Sooner or later, it will be impossible to win an election without them.
“What we are going through now, it will be the past,” Mr. Arroyo, the newspaper editor, said. “We have to celebrate diversity – every race, every people, every sexual orientation. This is America.”
For both candidates, the path to victory winds through fewer than a dozen battleground states, of which Wisconsin is only one. David Shribman explains what to watch for.
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